Before we get started, here's a way cool grip toy from 1895. Thanks to Jarett Hulse for this!
Click the pic to enlarge, eh.
This is a program that I have personally used, developed and tweaked throughout my over two-decades long competitive powerlifting career and over some 30 years of weight training in general. I have seen loads of programs come and go, some that work well, some that result in no substantial benefit.
This program can be injected into your larger training program as its focus is two-fold. First, it works to increase your grip strength. We all know that getting the deadlift locked out is useless if you cannot hold the weight at the trop long enough for the "down" command. Further, grip, a strong grip is essential in so many aspects of powerlifting and overall strength development. Be it gripping the bar on a 600-700 pound bench press, hefting strongman kegs, deadlifting. farmers' walk, etc., a strong grip is where it all begins as the barbell, the dumbbell, the implement is being held in the hands and the tighter you can lock a vicelike grip onto that apparatus, the more you can ultimately control the trajectory of that implement.
The second focus of this program is the actual development of the forearm itself. The ancillary parts of grip are all hit when performing some hypertrophy aspects to grip development, thus in addition to a vastly enhanced physical grip, the forearms will also see muscular development.
A few points to cover prior to getting into sets and reps and such. In my experience, grip strength is not a max effort, speed work thing, nor is it an equipped vs RAW thing, and finally, in my opinion, grip is not a percentages thing. Grip is a slow and steady, month building on month, year building upon year process. Grip is also, again based on my experience, a higher rep type of animal versus say a deadlift or squat. The reason being, much like say calves or abs, you use your hands and indirectly your forearms on a daily basis.
Every time you load a 45-lb plate onto a barbell, every time you lift a dumbbell, every time you lift off for someone or wrap their knees tight, you are working your grip. You will really notice how much gripping you do when you shake hands with a non-lifter. Their hands are free of the callouses that you have built up over time by grabbing some type of weight, barbell, lifting implement or something heavy repeatedly. You will also note how, and I will use the description "pillow-like" their hand feels.
So although you might not be doing anything specifically for your grip strength, truly, if you are serious about your lifting you are working your grip, albeit unintentionally and not to the fullest, but you are and have developed grip strength up to a degree.
This program will ultimately work in your advantage for any movement you do that requires your hands, forearms, fingers to be strong.
There are two types of times that I use this program, one being after a bench or back training day, or on "scraps" day. Scraps day is a day for those movmements all too left out by so many powerlifters who are focused on the big three but sometimes forget the supplemental movements. Thus scraps in my vernacular can include not-big three movement such as grip work, calves, abs, GPP, as well as stretching/flexibility/mobility, foam rolling and the like. On scraps, there are none of the traditional movements, but these ancillary movements.
Training grip after bench press and back is on purpose as quite frankly, if you train grip first, really train it, not just touch and go) you wouldn't be able to hold onto the bar to bench or pull. Secondly, once you are finished with either of these two (chest and/or back) you have been using a lot of grip, so you are warmed up and ready to train that aspect of your strength.
Unlike my deadlift, bench or squat routine, my grip work is not build like a training cycle, but trained all year round. There is a frequency, however, and that is at least one time every six calendar days, but more often than not I train my grip two out of every four training days. I can get away with this frequency because grip training will not stress your central nervous system, unless of course you are working with farmers' work apparatus, as farmers' walk work is a completely different type of beast.
The following are examples of my typical grip/forearm work sessions. There is no magic formula to this as time and consistency are the keys to improved grip work.
Think of it like a clean diet. It is not something that you do over a 6 week cycle, but something you always chip away at and then after time, referring to the clean diet comparison, you are now a solid-as-a-rock 242 versus a sloppy fast food ball of fat 275-er.
Typically this program is a lot of volume for a very few movements, but a lot of those movements as we are trying to exhaust the grip, wear it out if you will, as your grip is much like your calves. It has tremendous endurance and excessive reps at a good amount of weight is what it takes to actually push this area to get stronger. Just like sprints can build some cardio, long distance running can build tremendous cardio. The muscles in your grip work all the time so it takes a lot to work it.
By all means, experiment with this program, keeping what works for you and dumping what does not.
As I mentioned earlier, grip work follows a bench or deadlift training day . . . or is incorporated into a scrap day.
The first coupling of exercises I will explain, so you get the idea and the rest will be in list form for your convenience. I will them in groupings and you can choose from the list and pair them up as you like. Your one stop grip training warehouse.
My typical grip work is a combination of two movements with typically 5 sets per movment. If the movement is about muscle hypertrophy of the forearm, I go with higher reps with a weight that allows me to get X amount of reps until I cannot finish the movement. No spotters needed with the grip like a bench or squat so you can go until you drop the weight.
Also incorporated are a lot of static holds and I hold for 8 seconds on virtually all of these as for me, 8 seconds is the amount it takes to pull a grinder of a deadlift and then hold it until the judge says down. I am not a fan of holds that last until I cannot hold on any longer as I feel that is just taxing your CNS and I see no point for that. Having said that, the Farmer's Walk is an exception, and if you are training specifically for a duration grip movement, practicing that is advantageous.
Here is typically how the pairing goes, with this first basic pairing as the example:
Exercise 1 - Old Fashioned Wrist Curls.
Although this sounds like something from a 1976 muscle mag, there is nothing better to start a grip session with as it works the hands, fingers (as you will be bringing the bar down to the last phalanges in your hand).
You will do this on a bench press bench as it is a wider surface than most standalone benches. I lay my entire forearm, from elbow to wrist on the bench as I sit on the bench long-ways. It is essential to keep your elbow and forearm on the bench as not to incorporate your biceps. Use a 45-lb barbell with or without weight on it, depending on your strength level. The rep range for the first set is high, 30-35 reps. Only a few minutes should separate each set, so you will find, if you have picked the correct wieght for your strength, that you will lose about 10 reps per set. You are going to want to do 4-5 sets with as many reps as you can burn through, and BURN is the word. If your forearms are not burning, the weight is too light. Sometimes I will use the Mastadon bar, as is it longer, heavier and thicker (1-3/8" thick, 8' long and 60 lbs). I have tried the El Gordo Fat Bar too. That is pretty aggressive but does the trick. So, this movement will look like this:
Sets: 4-5, Reps: 30-35. Reps should be all you can get on the first set, then each following set to failure, with no more than 3-5 minutes between sets.
Exercise 2 - Reverse Wrist Curls.
Follow the old fashioned wrist curl movement with 4-5 sets of reverse wrist curls (perhaps the most neglected part of the body in the world of powerlifting). Use an EZ Curl bar as a straight bar will not work as well as it puts a lot of stress on your wrists. I guarantee you will be able to use very limited weight for your reps (same rep configuration as the prior movement). As your hands will need to be wider, you will sit on the bench the same way, but put your wrists, forearms and elbows on your quads as you sit on the bench. With both types or wrist curls, it is not a race, so no herky-jerky momentum curls, but a nice evenly paced set. Again, like the wrist curls, I feel higher reps are called for and 25-30 is the range you are looking for. Unlike the burn of the forearms, when you hit the wall with the reverse wrist curls you will know it as either your forearm cramping or it will simply conk out on you.
Following these movments, finish off with static holds with the Rolling Thunder.
You are going to want to hold the weight for 8 seconds, or about the time it takes to hold a grinder deadlift in a meet. Again, with all but a few exceptions, I am not a big fan of holds over 10 seconds (not including Farmers' Walk), as you want to hold for all you're worth for the time it would take to perform a lift. Load the Rolling Thunder up and pick a weight and add weight for the 4-5 sets of 8 second holds. You will find that your non-dominant hand will be considerably weaker.
TIP: As I am righthanded, pretty much any time I grab a gallon of milk, a suitcase, your laptop, a dumbbell, load a bar, I do so with the dominant hand and it becomes stronger. This might sound a little odd, but I alternate hands when I am loading bars at the gym. I train on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Mondays and Saturdays I grab weights off of the tree, or dumbbells off of the rack with my left hand, and I use my right hand on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Sounds strange, but if you have a significant imbalance of grip strength with your hands, my guess is you pick up 99% of the weights and other heavy implements with your more dominant hand. Food for thought.
The following are the other pairings I put together for my non-cycled grip work, this time without explanation, as I am going to make an assumption that you know most of these movements an the ones you don't you can search for online.
Again, in my experience, grip work is a journey, not so much a destination. It is ongoing so the wrok does not have to take a long time, as the volume is significant and the days in between are few.
Exercise 1: Farmers Walk
5 trips x ??? weight at 100' per trip. If you don't have farmers walk implements use Fat Gripz on heavy dumbbells. Unless you are a strongman competitor I would not do farmers waalks more than once every three weeks as they are an extreme training tool and in my experience they do impact your central nervous system and my hands feel tired and almost exhausted for days.
Exercise 2: 10-lb Plate Pinch Grip
5 sets x 8 seconds per pinch. If 10-lb plates are too light, try 25's. Put as many plates together (i.e. three, 10 lb plates) and when the grip goes the plate in the middle will slip out from between thie two other plates. Watch out for plates hitting your feet.
Exercise 1: Gripper Machine
3 warmup sets followed by 5 working sets of 20-25 reps. You will need to experiment with weight until you find that sweet spor where your girp is shot come the 20th rep or so. These are all done one hand at a time, so 5 sets for the left, and 5 for the right.
Exercise 2: Grippers
These, in my experience, are really hard on your skin. For the grip athlete, have at it. For me, I am trying to develop my grip and I want to do so without pulling the skin off my hands so I cheat and put a mini face towel or a part of a T-shirt around the gripper and squeeze it from there. It is like shrugs. I use straps as I want my traps to give out first, not my hands. Same here. I want to stop using the grippers after my hands are shot, not because my skin is getting ripped to shreds.
I go 5 sets per hand with 8 seconds of the grip being completely closed in my hand. Some will have to start with an easy level gripper, then, over time, go up to the next tension strength. There is no wrong amount of starting grip strength, there is only improving your strength.
So, 5 sets x 8 second squeezes per set, first with the right and then with the left hand.
Tip: Keep your arms straight when you do this as that best mimics the deadlift.
Exercise 1: Sled Pulls with 4-Grenade Balls
Okay Santa, load up your sled and at the end of the rope or chain attach two 4" grenade bal;ls and pull that heavy sled (walking forward so you can pull more weight) all over the parking lot. Minimally 150 feet per trip x 5 trips x ??? pounds of weight.
Exercise 2: Standing Finger Roll Curls
Take your barbell, hold it with a double pronated (knuckles forward) grip and allow the barbell to roll to the edge of your fingers to the point where you almost drop it, hold it there for a moment and then close the barball back into your pronated fist grip. 5 sets x a weight that you can do for 20-30 reps.
Do not let the bar come in contact with your thighs during the movement. You can do this exercise with all four fingers per hand, or two or one finger at a time once you have built up some finger strength. You will see 800-lb pullers work out with an empty bar. Less is more with this movement.
Exercise 1: Knee Wrap Rolls
This is one of the best finger-hand-forearm movements I have ever found and I stumbled onto it 20 years ago. I was at a meet and wrapping knee after knee and after each wrap I had to reroll the knee wrap. You know, you step on the knee wrap, pull a length of wrap, and then roll it into a tight little Hostess HoHo looking wrap. Take the longest knee wrap you have at the gym, make it a thick one, and let it unfurl. Then wrap it up as tight as you can and as quckly as you can.
5 nonstop sets of wrapping. Rest for a few minutes, then 5 nonstop sets again. Repeat this for 5 total sets (5 wraps equals one set). Sounds a little silly until your hand becomes to engorged with blood to continue.
Also, any chance you get to wrap someone's knees, do it, as a good knee wrap will work your hands. This link . . .
is how we wrap at the Monster Garage Gym and after wrapping a few pairs of knees, your hands are shot as they have been worked hard.
This movement falls into the category of "don't worry about looking silly wrapping and unwrapping knee wraps." Remember, the devil is in the details and that always works to your advantage when all other variables are equal.
Exercise 2: Sandbag Grabs
This is about as non-sexy an exercise as you can do. You load up a sandbag with as much sand weight as you like. I suggest 75 lbs to start with, and from the floor you pick up the bag, deadlift style, and hold the bag for up to 8 seconds. This is repeated for 5 sets (each set is comprised of five 8-second pickups).
Warning: there is simply no way to look cool doing this movement, but there is everything cool about hanging on to that deadlift bar at the meet.
Exercise 1: Wrist Roller
I do this with using a bar with the hollow barbell sleeve over it with a rope attached. I put the bar on the J-hooks of the squat rack and with my shoulders parallel to the floor at chest height I roll a few kettlebells (they have big handles that simply make them easier to use than plates) that are on the rope up to the bar with my hands going forward, then back down, then up the other direction with my hands going in the opposite direction.
5 sets of each direction with the right weight will blow your forearms up in the best of ways. Yes. It's the most, wonderful pump . . . of the year. This movement, like the wrist curls works both grip and forearm size. Choose a weight heavy enough so that at the top of the rope your hands and grip and forearms are shot. It will take some experimentation. Be liberal with the chalk to as this one does work abrasively against the skin of your hands. Lastly, keep your arms straight out as much as possible, again to best mimic the straight arms of the deadlift.
Exercise 2: Dumbbell Holds
Again, simple and cheap. (Blog owner's note: exactly how my late first wife described me). Not the plate dumbbells here, but with the all one piece dumbbells. Grab the dumbbell from the weighted side and with your arm straight down, hold the weight for a count of 8-10 seconds with a grip that makes this amount of time a challenge. 5 sets of 5 holds.
Use a face towel if the dumbbell slips because this is about grip strength and losing the weight when your hands and fingers , fatigue. It is not about trying to hold on to something slippery.
Remember, you work your grip indirectly all the time, so grip work is a slow-and-steady wins the race type of thing. Also, consistency with grip work is more important than the sheer weight as grip comes over time, not unlike flexibility or endurance.
It is not about heaving the weight nor using momentum, as that will only serve your ego, not enhance your grip.
ENJOY YOUR GRIPPING AND LIFTING!